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The Road to Gay Equality

on . Posted in Commentary.

This article is by guest writer Bernie Leong.




In Lillian Faderman's groundbreaking book, Gay L.A., she writes that in 1942, "A circle of lesbian friends pooled their money and purchased a row of rental houses in Los Angeles. They created an early lesbian enclave, constructing communal areas such as a swimming pool, where they would meet each other regularly; and the homes in which they did not live, they leased only to other lesbians. They provided not only fellowship for one another but also social services. For example, when the sixty-year-old resident of the community suffered a ruptured aneurysm, and doctors wanted to institutionalize her permanently, her lesbian neighbours organized rotating shifts to dress and undress her, feed her, and keep her stimulated by conversation. Against the doctors' dire predictions ('She will survive as a vegetable'), she recovered normal speech and became fully functioning after three years."


A Collective Consciousness

Clearly, lesbians and gays have creatively organized and craved community from the beginning. In 1893, French sociologist Emile Durkheim coined the term "collective consciousness". What did he mean?

It is the solidarity that arises when the members of a group become aware of their shared traits, goals and circumstances, and act as a community. They share a collective consciousness and support each other to pool resources and knowledge. From this consciousness, greater advances in social movements spring.

Where Are We Going from Here?

In parallel with 1970's America, Singapore has burst through the barrier of collective consciousness and is surging ahead. I have had the great fortune of participating in an ever-swelling lesbian and gay community, from Sayoni events, Redqueen gatherings, and Women's Nites, to Pink Dot, the Indignation festival, and numerous friends' gatherings over 10 years. We and our friends meet in a Buddhist lesbian group and have organized larger Buddhist lesbian gatherings. Numerous shared lesbian households exist.

I was invited to dinner at a lesbian friend's HDB flat, of which 2 rooms are rented out to lesbians and another to a gay-friendly straight couple. All over the island, lucky lesbian homeowners, by word of mouth or otherwise, rent out their rooms to other lesbians. Such instances of community are possible because the lesbian population has reached a critical mass. Through community institutions, websites, women's nights, dinners at home, friendships, festivals and clubs, all fostered by gay organizers, friends, networkers and community leaders, lesbian and gay people are connecting.

Several times in recent years, my partner, like many lesbians, has imagined the idea of lesbian retirement homes in Singapore. Like in Los Angeles in 1942, these would be apartments where lesbians would buy or rent individual homes and enjoy community and support at the end of their working lives; where they would have dignity and care instead of being forced back into the closet.


The Success of LGBT Organizations

The recent UN delegation sent by Sayoni demonstrates its effectiveness in moving the gay community forward. Singapore, in a similar way to the US of the 1970's, is undergoing social change, especially towards greater creativity and freedom of expression.

Faderman elucidates that the movement for social equality and fair treatment in America succeeded because the "flower power" decade of the 70's and its attendant social freedom opened the door to change. Just one decade before, lesbians and gays were persecuted and treated as an inferior class. News coverage was negative and hateful, gay people who came out were liable to lose their jobs, and bars were raided regularly. The people of the next generation rejected these norms: Faderman writes that "the hip and high and gay rejected the sociopolitical rigidity of the 1940s-50s and fervently embraced new politics. By 1961, an estimated 140,000 gay men and women lived in LA."

The flagbearers of the revolution came from all stripes of society; from activists, to mainstream professionals; from the wealthy and closeted, to the religious. Their efforts came in three broad streams: organization and activist efforts, community building, and political power-button pushing.

Several examples serve to illustrate the broad tapestry of efforts described intimately in Gay L.A. Women's centers run by activists and volunteers, such as the Gay Women's Service Center and the Westside Women's Center, opened in the 1970's. They published feminist newspapers, trained women to work in the building trades, and offered activities every evening of the week - rap groups, dances, and a music night in which women bought their own instruments to play together. Through gay newspapers and event spaces, by the 1970's, lesbians knew themselves to be part of a vast community. There was a flourishing lesbian press all over America. By 1973, the Gay Women's West Coast Conference attracted over 2000 women from 26 states and several countries to UCLA. It was the largest single gathering of lesbians known in history.

Visibility came in the form of brave volunteers who marched in the streets through the decades. Especially popular with gay activists were "kiss-ins" and "gay-ins". For example, Debby Quinn and Marsha Salisbury, when told by the International House of Pancakes restaurant to leave for holding hands, brought 12 other women back with them to successfully stage the first lesbian kiss-in. Gay gatherings attracted thousands of frolickers who dared to be openly gay under banners and balloons pronouncing "Gay Power", and "Gay is Good". Gay activists went to medical meetings where homosexuals were demonized, standing up to challenge doctors publicly. These efforts were key to the removal in 1973 of homosexuality as an illness in America.


Gay and Lesbian Professionals

She describes that Steve Lachs, who would be the first openly gay judge in the world, was told not to march in the 1971 gay pride parade, "Steve, you can’t. You have a career." But in the wake of the visibility gay activists were achieving, business-people and professionals dared to come out, one at a time. The Municipal Elections Committee of Los Angeles (MECLA), over several years, became the most powerful gay political force seen in the nation. Initially composed of young, upper-middle-class men and women, they decided to lend their clout to gay politics to "change the public image of homosexuals from socially marginal individuals to a power with which politicians must reckon." The group contacted wealthy potential donors on a one-to-one basis to attend fundraisers and events, and raised $20,000 in 1976, a remarkable sum. Politicians, who needed money, began to covet invitations to "MECLA breakfasts", where political candidates canvassed gay potential donors.

The Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center, a landmark institution begun in the 1960's, began raising money and establishing tiered donor groups, holding fundraisers with lawn parties and cocktail buffets. They raised record amounts of money, and established a broad range of gay services when the government decided to cut funding.

The media was also educated. GLAAD, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, was founded by a lesbian producer and a gay movie attorney who demanded meetings with Hollywood executives to discuss coverage of gays and lesbians, and in response to homophobic movies such as Basic Instinct. Gay community representatives were present at the Oscar nominations press conferences and the Academy Awards to bring awareness to anti-gay movie portrayals. It became unacceptable for TV hosts like Rush Limbaugh to utter anti-gay pronouncements and jokes. Even Jay Leno commented that he reviewed his jokes with GLAAD and sought to portray gays positively.

There was also serious infighting in the gay community, between gay men and lesbians, and between social classes. The struggle was remarkable for its persistent efforts over many years despite the difficulties. Institutionalized persecution against gay people and their relationships continued. However, these actions by gays from all sectors of society on media led inexorably to political victories, and gay rights bills that outlawed job discrimination against homosexuals. Major politicians began to remark privately that the gay community was an extremely potent force politically and began to take them seriously.

How will Singapore gay society move forward, now that we have reached the present level of legal and social engagement and community awareness? There are parallels in the growth of our community and those in other countries. In Gay L.A., Faderman gives an insider's how-to guide on how America moved from gay bar raids to gay marriage; from Third World to First, to paraphrase Lee Kuan Yew.

It is important for us to have a sense of history in our efforts to become equal, protected by the law, and to be afforded dignity and respect in the community.

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